In at the deep end

By Andrew Robb  -  03 April 2015

Imagine the scene: 

You’re playing in a chamber ensemble participating in a project with improvising musicians. Life is less than comfortable.  Aside from the complicated sound world that is facing you, these other musicians seem to be talking in another language! Technical terms such as “vibe”, “killing!”, “blowing”, and “mega” are being thrown around like confetti at a wedding as you sit and smile politely in the middle of it all. 

You’re feeling hot, hands turning clammy, instrument shaking, brow perspiring, head bowed and eyes looking anywhere but the front, thinking to yourself “Oh no please not me!” as the conductor/MD turns around to you and utters the dreaded words, “Fancy improvising a solo here?”. You’ve just been thrown the worst of the worst for many classical musicians. All of a sudden the thought of doing anything other than the task at hand seems like paradise as the apocalyptic musical nightmare that you now face looms in front of you….

Andrew in rehearsal


Sounds familiar?

As a jazz double bassist with classical background I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a broad range of musical projects. Some of these have involved a fusion of musical styles sometimes known as “crossover” projects. This has been as varied as playing the Rite of Spring for jazz octet to orchestral projects with small jazz bands as well as digital ensembles and contemporary dance companies. All of these have involved improvising within the music. What fascinates me (in the least sadistic way possible) is the perception of classical musicians new to those scenarios, having to improvise. I should clarify that when I speak of improvising I’m not talking specifically about jazz, it could any genre of music.

Here are four tips to help avoid the above scenario and hopefully have some additional benefits to your playing:

1)Expect to make mistakes and don’t feel ashamed about it.

Sally Beamish is an award-winning composer who has written compositions that feature improvising. She has also written works for famous jazz musicians such as Branford Marsalis. She spent two years doing a part time course on jazz improvisation and strongly recognises a sense of fear when approaching the topic. When I asked her about her experience of dealing with classical musicians improvising for the first time she said, “A lot of classical musicians would refuse to improvise in any style. I think classical training is so intensive, and tends to start at such a young age, that the thought of playing anything that isn't on the page, and isn't learnt in advance, is terrifying. There are other issues, too - for instance what if a note is 'wrong' or out of tune - we are trained to think of these things as calamitous.”

This is usually accompanied by a belief that whilst it is their first time improvising, they feel that they should be able improvise. Not only that, but that they should be able to do it well. This is an unrealistic and illogical expectation. Imagine a musician who has never played classical music being asked to play a piece by Bartok. Expecting them to play it with a perfect sense of phrasing and interpretation the first time around is unrealistic. And yet we place these expectations upon ourselves.

The good news is that all improvisers have, at some point, felt the experience described above.. Being placed outside your comfort zone does that to you. But if you can look past the human element of the fear of failure, there is opportunity to learn something new, and broaden your musical pallet of expression. “Just relax, forget about the opinions of others, and tap into your instinctive musicality. It's a bit like learning a language - you just have to jump in and do it, without feeling ashamed of mistakes.

2) Get interested in harmony, particularly major modes.

Improvising sharpens our ears to hear the basic harmonic progressions that make up a significant percentage of the music a musician may be called upon to play. It's not about joining random notes or phrases together, but more like trying to compose something coherent in real time. Beamish found her experience of improvising had a strong impact her musical outlook “I realised when learning to improvise that improvisation is composing 'in real time'. It has freed up my approach to composing. There is more instinct in my writing now and I trust my gut perceptions rather than working everything out”  

It’s important to remember that musical compositions come to fruition from a process of improvising.  In the classical world solo cadenzas featured improvised passages of virtuosic brilliance. Many famous composers such as Liszt, Bach, Handel, Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven were skilled improvisers themselves and improvising was a prized skill between the Medieval and Romantic periods of music. 

Why is it important to train our ears and to bring this side of playing into a widely notated idiom?

Our job as instrumentalists is to read what is put in front of you and interpret it in such a way to make music that is intellectually satisfying and engages the listener. There are many ways to interpret what's written on a page. However, there is only one way to understand the principles of the harmonic and melodic movement; 'why it works,' and that is through the eyes of the composer. If you can understand the 'how' and the 'why' even at a very basic level, you can hear the direction of the 'nuts and bolts' of the music and this allows you greater freedom to choose your own interpretation. This is also true when it comes to writing your own cadenzas for solo repertoire. Listen to Wynton Marsalis playing cadenzas in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto for an example of this harmonic and melodic freedom within a classical setting.

3) Take a short melody and find 15 different ways of playing it.

The best performers and performances have spontaneity. Playing the same piece again and again and still being able to bring out something different, new and exciting within that work is something we all aspire to do. But how can we go about attaining this? One exercise that can help is to take an eight bar melody and find 15 different ways of playing it. It will encourage you to come up with different ideas of interpretation as well opening the mind to the possibilities of musical expression. 

4) Improvise in the style of a composer whose style you know well.

Classical musicians have played hundreds of pieces by many composers and have a strong ear for stylistic nuance. Using this knowledge, you can start improvising within sound worlds that you are already familiar with. Take a piece that you know well and play it so the sound of the composition is fresh in your mind. You can then choose certain phrases as starting points for exploratory improvising within the style of that piece. It can be as easy or challenging as you want. For example, within a passage you can choose to keep the notes and change the rhythm (or vice versa), or keep the dynamic shape and create the melody yourself. It’s an exercise that gets you thinking creatively with written material as a framework. By departing from the written material and experimenting away from the page, it encourages you to be more aware of the stylistic choices available when interpreting music. 

Developing your improvising skills can be enormously beneficial to all musicians. I asked Beamish on what she thought the pros and cons are of incorporating improvising into a musician’s practice. “I think it would always be beneficial. I can't think of any negatives, it frees the musicianship and opens the ears” There is real fun and enjoyment in making music spontaneously with people, bouncing ideas off each other and using them for inspiration. 

I think that there is a strong desire within musicians to develop their improvising skills, but often they aren’t sure how to do it. These suggestions are ideas that will help you take your first steps into improvising. You can start doing them today in your practice space without having to undergo additional intensive education or training. You can do them on your own or with friends. The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy it! If you’re really interested in improvising, the best advice I can give is to throw yourself in the deep end and do it. I’d recommend going on a beginners improvising course for a day or two. Try to view it as a professional development course. It can be quite scary at first but it’s like learning a language; the more you do it, the better you’ll get and the more enjoyable it becomes. This was something Beamish identified with strongly. “It was a steep learning curve. I found it daunting at first - so much so that I nearly pulled out. I was embarrassed and nervous. But I learnt not to be self-conscious and to stop thinking about what others thought. But it was one of the most important learning experiences of my life. Hopefully you’ll find that improvising can be fun and an inspiring method of music making. 


Find out more about Andrew and his performances here

About Andrew Robb

Jazz double bass player Andrew Robb loves crossing between genres of music and takes his talents with him to every style of music he approaches.

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